Thursday, June 27, 2013

Black Luminosity and The Book of Negroes: How Did Black Americans Go From Slave Passes to Supporting Wiretaps and Domestic Spying?

African-Americans are a product of the Surveillance State.

Simone Browne discusses this history in her article "Black Luminosity and Surveillance" which explores slave insurrections, migrations, and revolt, and how such common objects as the lantern were used by whites to suppress and limit the opportunities for black folks to gather and to (potentially) engage in resistant behavior:
The Book of Negroes lists passengers on board 219 ships that set sail from New York between 23 April 1783 and 30 November 1783. Ships, as Paul Gilroy tells us, ‘were the livings means by which the points within the Atlantic ‘were the livings means by which the points within the Atlantic world were joined’ (1993, p. 16). 
Following this, The Book of Negroes is not only a record of escape on board 219 ships, but it can also be thought of as a record of how the surveillance of black Atlantic mobilities was integral to the formation of the Canada US border. If we are to take transatlantic slavery as the antecedent of contemporary surveillance technologies and practices as they concern inventories of ships’ cargo and the making of ‘scaled inequalities’ in the Brookes slave ship schematic (Spillers 1987, p. 72), biometric identification by branding the body with hot irons (Browne 2010), slave markets and auction blocks as exercises of synoptic power where the many watched the few, slave passes and patrols, black codes and fugitive slave notices, it is to the archives, slave narratives and often to black expressive practices and creative texts that we can look to for moments of refusal and critique.
We can think of the lantern as a prosthesis made mandatory after dark, a technology that made it possible for the black body to be constantly illuminated from dusk to dawn, made knowable, locatable and contained within the city. The black body, technologically enhanced by way of a simple device made for a visual surplus where technology met surveillance, made the business of tea a white enterprise and encoded white supremacy, as well as black luminosity, in law. Of course, unsupervised leisure, labour, travel, assembly and other forms of social networking past sunset by free and enslaved black New Yorkers continued regardless of the enforcement of codes meant to curtail such things.
This arrangement was not created in post 9-11 America. As demonstrated above, its roots are much, much deeper.

During the American Slaveocracy, Black Americans were victims of racial terrorism and tyranny. And throughout the United States blacks were subjected to surveillance and harassment by White Society.

Moreover, the Southern Slaveocracy put into effect elaborate systems of slave passes, patrols, spying, black codes, and other means of spying on and monitoring African-Americans in order to maintain their dominance over a whole community.

So afraid whites were of slave uprisings and resistance, that many areas of the South had standing militias with orders that all white men be prepared to fight a black insurrection--even on Sunday and at church. Despite these elaborate means of surveillance and control, black Americans fought, resisted, triumphed, and battled against a tyrannical Racial State--until it was brought down (however momentarily until Jim and Jane Crow)--in no small part because of their efforts during The Civil War.

Given black Americans' legacy of resisting tyranny and surveillance by the State, this finding by Pew Research, that they support domestic spying and the National Security Administration's violations of civil liberties, is vexing. It stands against centuries of history and shared struggle:
A recent Pew Research poll shows that blacks are more willing to accept curbs to privacy than others polled. 
According to the poll, 45 percent of Americans say the government should be able to “go further than it is” to increases security, while 55 percent of blacks are accepting of additional curbs to privacy. In all, 52 percent of those polled said broad based monitoring of Americans should not occur.  Among blacks, only 44 percent of those polled found the extra measures unacceptable. 
Among all adults, 62 percent said investigating possible threats was more important. The figure was 60 percent among whites, 67 percent among nonwhites and 75 percent among African Americans.
I would suggest that this support of the Surveillance Society is a reflection of 1) a desire to be nationalistic, patriotic, and to continuously assert the "Americanness" of black folks in an era of resurgent racism, Birtherism, and other fictions that doubt their full membership in the polity, as well as 2) a trust in Barack Obama, and an incumbent belief in the symbolism of the man and his triumph, as opposed to the day-to-day and practical relationship between his election and the well-being of black communities.

Black Americans are among those most likely to be subjected to the technologies which limit the privacy rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Yet, Black Americans are not resisting the all-seeing eye and panopticon. It would appear that the Surveillance Society has been able to create a type of Stockholm syndrome through over-identification with the United States' first black president.

Ultimately, the radical nature of the Black Freedom Struggle has been defeated by a magical glamour of partisan identification and dreaming through the vessel who is Barack Obama.


Shady Grady said...

It's mostly number 2. Also unless and until the surveillance is directed specifically and solely at black folks do not expect to hear any criticism from the likes of Joy Reid or Al Sharpton. Many black people in the leadership or analysis class are evidently quite happy to live vicariously through the President and First Lady.

What will be funny though, especially if we get a Republican President in 2017 is to watch people that were silent for 8 years about wage stagnation and high unemployment in the black community suddenly and miraculously rediscover their ability to criticize the President. So it goes.

To be fair the ugly racism which animates so much of Republican/conservative opposition to PBO removes much of the possibility for a vigorous left/black critique of PBO.

Stephen Kearse said...

Black luminosity is an interesting idea, but I feel that Invisible Man shows the limits of visual metaphors as a way of thinking about surveillance. And even if the lanterns are considered to be reifed mechanisms of surveillance, they surveil in tandem with other nonvisual ways, like accents, skin health and probably even odor.

But back to the topic, I agree with your two ideas on why Black Americans are so obliging to the surveillance society. I'd just add that despite voting records and overt political allegiances, maybe Black Americans are overwhelmingly conservative. By that I mean that because there are few ways to be a self-respecting Black conservative without becoming an infamous Black Republican, there are a probably a bunch of "closeted" Black conservatives who don't really have a public discourse where they can be conservative without being called Uncle Toms.

Vic78 said...

If we end up with a GOP president in 2017, this country deserves everything that's coming. The Democrats may as well quit due to incompetence. Black folks are going to get it with a republican president. There's no need for the GOP to pretend anymore.

The radical part of the freedom struggle has been over for a long time. I remember Puffy and Russell Simmons getting people to Vote or Die in a state that John Kerry was going to win no matter what anybody did.

Tracy Be said...

Over the years, some of my white friends have insisted that I wear sunscreen to protect myself from skin cancer. When I'd tell them that melanoma was last on my list of health worries they'd say, ah, but you're dark skinned, so you wouldn't notice a fatal splotch until it was too late. I'm not so sure they were concerned about my welfare. It felt more like wishful thinking: anything bad that affected them had to be far worse for me, and that was a comfort of sorts. I'm getting the same vibe from the discussion around surveillance. This article was valuable to me in its outlining of the scrutiny black folks have been subjected to over the years, but I think it over-intellectualizes why black people aren't racing to defend Snowden or to decry monitoring. Honestly, over the course of a single day, we're dealing with all kinds of insults and injuries that directly impact the quality of our lives. Who has time or energy to handwring over this abstraction? We don't have to be busted saying anything about anything to be denied, marginalized, detained, or executed. Ever. So you have this guy who sounds an alarm about the cancer he's worried about. To me, it is no wonder that millions shrug. As for the active support of surveillance programs being an assertion of Americaness--I kinda agree, but I think the article misunderstands why. It's not a desperate bid for respectability. It's not because we want to be seen as Americans; it's because we believe we are. it's also because we're looking at the messenger and noticing that he looks exactly like the guy who posts his intentions for months before annihilating his family or going on a school rampage. We are not imagining we'll be caught in the digital dragnet. We are hoping that he will be.

chauncey devega said...

Black Americans are very conservative on many "moral" or "values" issues. We are also very law and order oriented--despite what some in the media would have the public believe.

What you said in closing is the rub. How can any self-respective black person identify with today's tea party gop? By definition they are Uncle Toms. That is one of real frustrations of the GOP leadership. Blacks are very conservative; but the latter's message is so horrid that they can't even get a pittance of support.

chauncey devega said...

Plus, many black communities have been under intense surveillance and over-policing for decades. Maybe it is just a "who cares?" because it is so obvious. This makes these violations of our rights no less problematic or onerous.

chauncey devega said...

"Many black people in the leadership or analysis class are evidently quite happy to live vicariously through the President and First Lady."

And thus complain when they don't get invites to the White House as that is what really matters in the long run, no?

chauncey devega said...

"There's no need for the GOP to pretend anymore.'

The water is boiling and they are throwing in the spices for a nice bbq just like the good old days.

Shady Grady said...


Constructive_Feedback said...

My dear friend Chauncey DeVega:

I give you partial credit for attempting to be transparent by asking this question in the first place.

You said "TRUST OBAMA".
The more accurate question is to ask "Does the Americanized Negro DISTINGUISH between their view of OBAMA as the VEHICLE FOR THE FIGHT AGAINST THE RIGHT WING" versus the question of TRUST they have in the FEDERAL GOVERNMENT after years of betrayal?

I just don't trust your motives, Mr DeVega.

You CANNOT make a label "Obama Tricknology".
OBAMA DID NOT "TRICK" anyone who wasn't ALREADY AWAITING the cover for them to voice his policies.

You CANNOT, sir, posit this question without switching it around to the vantage point of the "Americanized Negro" NOT OBAMA.

"Why Did The Americanized Negro Let Down Their Guard, Allowing An AMERICAN ELECTED OFFICIAL To Serve As Their HOPE For 'Social Justice', So Much So That They Don't Doth Protest The "CIA In Africa" Or The "NSA As The New Cointelpro" BECAUSE Such Protests Would Harm Their Interests In The Executive Giving The Green Light?

Miles_Ellison said...

It goes in cycles. Most of the people on the right complaining about Obama's surveillance state and extra-judicial drone justice were silent about the legalized post 9/11 civil liberties violations under Bush. Conversely, the progressive left wing critics of the Bush/Cheney security fear state have not been nearly as vociferous in their criticism of the NSA's domestic spying under Obama.

The sad thing is that this is one issue has the potential to unite a large swath of the American populace, but people are too blinded by racism, envy, resentment, and living vicariously through Obama's celebrity to get together and resist it.

One of Obama's first orders of business should have been the dismantling of the domestic surveillance apparatus because the next inevitably Republican President will do exactly the same things, and all of the people on the right who are criticizing this program now will stop when their guy is in charge.

JGrey said...

Your two suggestions are a direct product of this warped myth that black people through their suffering had achieved some kind of higher state of socio political awareness.

And that's simply untrue. Well, if you squint your eyes and peer at history at a certain angle, it might be true to a certain extent. I mean that kind of story is fine and well to tell yourself at the end of a hard working day as you're about to saviour a well earned glass of Bourbon but it can't be used to predict the general behaviour of your average black John Smith.

I don't know if it's possible to explain to those nursed on stories of dragon slayed and evil vanquished, that in spite of a state of utter and complete defeat akin to a "game over" situation of epic proportion, a total disaster, as you're waiting to be whisked away out of existence in acknowledgement to your demise, here is the greatest secret of the universe's mysteries revealed:

... nothing happens, your stomach growls as you get hungrier as time goes by, and you reckon that you might as well find something to eat.. in a few word : life goes on.

Where is this epic story of the intense struggle of a legendary Black Knight of Virtue and Freedom against the nefarious white adder of Surveillance and Tyranny ? nowhere and that's because our mainstream means of survival has always been a pure unadulterated and complete surrender, at least in the face of those two particular evils, Surveillance and Body Control while a handful of us choose to fight the good fight.

75% are not bothered by State surveillance.. that sounds about right. Heck, 25% thinks that might not be a great idea, that sound like an improvement.

chauncey devega said...

I am not so deluded by the stories we tell children like Santa Claus and the like.

African-Americans have been way ahead of the curve, as a measurable empirical matter on all manner of public policy issues. Given our unwarranted and unrewarded loyalty to the State and making American democracy more open and inclusive our struggles have served as role models for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters, women, and other groups both here and abroad engaging in mass political resistance and social change work.

I just want to know how we lost our way in surrendering to such gross violations of privacy rights and freedoms.

chauncey devega said...

When are you going to start doing those Youtube promos?